I left James Foley at the door when I walked into the interrogation room. I had first met the indescribably charming American journalist on a landing strip in Kandahar, Afghanistan, back in 2010. We had stood together alone at dawn for five consecutive days, hoping for a helicopter to fly though a gap in a sandstorm to take us to be embedded with US units fighting during the Afghan surge. I last saw Foley in Turkey, near the Syrian border. He was coming out from an assignment; I was going in. The British photojournalist John Cantlie was with him. That was back in 2012. A couple of months later, Foley disappeared. The next time the world saw him was in August 2014 as he knelt in the Syrian sand, hands tied, and was beheaded by a British Isis terrorist.
The two prisoners had already been seated down together by guards on a brown sofa the other side of the room when I walked in. They were handcuffed and blindfolded, and I found myself relieved by the separation this afforded, as it allowed me to take a seat opposite them without having to deal with the handshake issue.
The handshake issue had really bothered me. As a journalist I have shaken hands with some terrible men: war criminals, murderers, rapists, terrorists, traffickers, torturers. Whenever possible I try to shake the hand of anyone I am about to interview in a formal setting, out of respect for the space of communication between us rather than out of any liking for whom they are, or any acceptance of what they have done. But could I shake the hands of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh?
If the allegations against them were true then these two prisoners were the men known respectively as “Ringo” and “George” by the desperate Western hostages they had held in Syria while part of the infamous four-strong British Islamic State cell nicknamed “the Beatles”. They were led by Mohammed Emwazi, the former Londoner who had beheaded Foley.
Aside from Foley, I had known four other of these men’s hostages. Of these only one made it out alive. Though four Frenchmen, three Spaniards, an Italian and a Danish hostage had finally emerged from long captivity and deplorable treatment, ransomed out to freedom in 2014, three American and two British hostages were beheaded by Emwazi, and a Russian hostage was murdered by another member of the gang. And those were the ones whose fate was known.
Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old American hostage who was also held by the gang for a time, was killed in unknown circumstances in February 2015. John Cantlie, who featured in several Isis propaganda videos, remains missing.
By all accounts these four British Isis activists had relished in the torture, beatings and abuse of their prisoners. “They were not told to go in and beat us up, I don’t think so, but they did it because they wanted to, they enjoyed it,” recalled Daniel Rye Ottosen, the Danish hostage, in an interview after his release.
During the peak of the Islamic State caliphate, the gang had become the most notorious British terror cell of its time, sparking rage and wonder in the UK among a populace that was both revolted by their behaviour and astonished that such perverse, hateful acts could have been committed by British citizens.
The gang’s fortunes finally declined as the caliphate began to crumble. Emwazi was killed by a US drone in 2015, and Aine Davis, allegedly “Paul”, was arrested and imprisoned in Turkey the same year. Then, four months ago, Kotey and Elsheikh were captured by Kurdish forces in northern Syria, and transferred to the detention centre in the town of Kobane, where I met them.
The blindfolds and cuffs were removed, and we looked at each other for some moments, separated by eight feet of space. A single guard sat to a flank, and a canary sang from a cage on the wall.
“Elsheikh is George,” a surviving hostage, an old friend, had told me 48 hours earlier over the phone when I had asked him about the men and their behaviour. “He’s violent, angry, unpredictable and always on edge. He loved violence and did much of the torture. He was the one who really had it in for James Foley and gave him such a hard time.” He said that Kotey was nicknamed Ringo. “He can be a violent thug too but he is more intelligent and tries to explain [Islamic State] and to persuade. If you see them, kick them in the balls and tell them from me to fuck themselves.”
But I was not there to tell them to fuck themselves. Much more difficult, I was there to draw out as much information as I could in a time determined by the two prisoners. They had agreed to the interview with me in advance, and were free to ignore any question or terminate the conversation whenever they wished.
With these dictates in mind, I had left James Foley at the door, and instead chose common ground for the game that followed, each of us in that room aware that the other was after something – they to mould their own narrative; I to discern fact and take information – but meeting sometimes in the space between.
The common ground was the Golborne Road in west London, an area well known to Elsheikh and where both Kotey and I had lived, overlapping for a brief period. We took a tour of shared haunts together: George’s Fish Bar, the Malaysian café under the Westway, the local gym, a bar we had both drunk in before Kotey converted; we talked of police and thieves, before finishing with coffee in Lisboa.
“I loved that area! It was the most cosmopolitan place in London,” Kotey said, unaware at the irony of the statement.
The hunt for common ground is an old questioning technique. The Americans had been using it with them too. Kotey told me that his principal department of defence interrogator talked with him endlessly about his favourite film, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, which the interrogator claimed as his own choice too.
Time passed. On the wall the canary sang. The room settled into the rhythm of our conversation. Both men, shaven headed and in prison-issued track suits, were exactly as described to me by former hostages: Elsheikh brooding and angry, Kotey more considered and intelligent.
Sometimes they wanted to explain. Occasionally they simmered with latent rage. Mostly we bantered.
“Hey, I think I remember you in Golborne,” Kotey beamed at one point.
“Yeah, maybe,” I beamed back, encouragingly.
Sometimes we joked together, many a blade lurking in the laughter. At one point, I recalled being shot while a hostage in Syria and they cried “sobering, sobering”, trilling with delight.
“How much do you think you’d have been worth if you came into Islamic State’s hands?” Kotey smiled again.
“More than you are now!” I replied and we chortled at our reversed circumstances.
After an hour or so the first details of interest began to trickle into the room. It transpired that neither man, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since their capture near Deir Azzour, had been interviewed by MI6 or British police officers. Every interrogation, they told me, had instead been conducted by the Americans or Kurds, in sessions that had ended suddenly three weeks earlier.
They knew that their British citizenship had been revoked, denying them the chance of a trial at home. Cognisant that much of the evidence against them in any trial would be intelligence-gathered information not submissible in a UK court – or else garnered from the testimony of hostages who were aware only that they had been tortured by “masked men” – the pair had identified, probably correctly, that the removal of their citizenship demonstrated the UK authorities were not confident in their ability to construct a solid prosecution case.
“No one wants to look like the person who tried us and was not able to secure a conviction because the evidence wasn’t strong enough,” Kotey said.
The likelihood of getting the men to face credible justice looks slender. The International Criminal Court (ICC) does not have the remit to try them. A US federal court might be able to. Guantanamo is another possibility. None is ideal. Rather than solve an issue, the removal of their British citizenship seems to have complicated the chances of their ever facing coherent trial.
Eventually, I moved the conversation to where I wanted it to be. What happened to the British journalist John Cantlie?
They never replied with a “no comment”. They were too sophisticated for that, instead deflecting questions on the missing hostage with, “I’d prefer to discuss that matter when I have legal representation.”
I chased Cantlie’s fate down another alley, exploring the questions that their US interrogators had asked. From what the pair told me, it seemed the Americans believed that Cantlie was dead, killed in an airstrike in Mosul.
They could have been lying to me. It would have suited their narrative. Yet their answers on this issue had the calm measure suggestive of truth.
I managed just over two hours with those two men in that room. Neither was in any way repentant and both seemed to pose lasting threat; Kotey in particular. The ease of his banter, his wit, intelligence and ability effortlessly to switch between the Golborne Road and the caliphate suggested he was an ideal candidate for recruiting others down the same route.
“If you go for trial at the ICC I will see you again,” I said, smoothly enough, managing to avoid shaking hands as I stood to leave. “If you don’t, I won’t. Thank you for your time.”
“Yeah, bye then,” they said.
James Foley was waiting for me outside, just where I had left him, and his presence lingered with me long afterwards, as echoes of the laughter I had shared in that room cut through my thoughts.
Anthony Loyd is a reporter for the Times
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis